Posted by Evan on Monday, 8 August 2005 at 2:15 pm
Since the liberation of Tibet, and the consequential exile of the Dali Lama, Tibet has been the focus of an extensive redevelopment plan by the Chinese government. On the one hand they have built much needed road networks, schools, hospitals, and a variety of other important infrastructure. On the other hand they have stomped all over the indigenous people, their culture, and their religion.
In many ways Tibet is still a police state. There are soldiers and police roaming the streets, and on guard at all of the major Buddhist sites–particularly Potala Palace, the former home of the Dali Lama.
Like Xinjiang, the largest province in China, Tibet was conquered by the Han Chinese during the Qing Dynasty. Subsequently the Chinese have encountered difficulties in maintaining political control and obedience to the Party in these culturally alien, and physically remote places. Since the time of Mao, however, the Party has maintained a deliberate policy of ethnic Han resettlement from the east coast into the western provinces. This means that the majority of people living in the cities of Tibet and Xinjiang are ethnic Chinese, and not the indigenous Tibetans or Uyghurs. In fact my ex-girlfriend, Li Dong Dong, is the child of Han settlers living in Xinjiang–they took a government incentive package to move there from Shandong province before she was born.
Considering both the politically sensitive situation, and the huge cost of widespread population resettlement, plus the numerous infrastructure projects that it necessitates, the government has been trying to recoup costs wherever possible. In the case of Tibet this has taken the form of expensive permits to enter and remain in the province, and ridiculous laws governing the movements and supervision of foreigners outside of the two main cities, Lhasa and Shigatse.
Sergio and I are exactly the sort of tourists that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) are trying to keep out of Tibet. Specifically they want western tourists with heaps of money who’ll prebook all their activities with government approved travel agents, who in turn provide Han Chinese guides that will toe the party line. This has the double benefit of providing a ready source of cash as well as making sure that foreigners only get official party propaganda. Considering this, Sergio and I resolved to illegally sneak into Tibet, overland from Golmud, in neighbouring Qinghai province.
After attending the Great Wall rave in Beijing I caught an overnight hard-seat train to Xi’an. From there I booked another hard-seat service to Lanzhou, but having about 14 hours before departure I hopped on a mini-bus down to Hua Shan (another great holy mountain). I arrived just in time to make the 5 hour relentless ascent in 29°C heat! Needless to say I was incredibly sweaty by the time I got back on the bus to Xi’an. In Lanzhou I met Sergio, and we departed on another hard-seat to Golmud.
In Golmud we checked into the only hotel that is licensed to accommodate foreigners. This hotel also happened to house the China International Travel Service (CITS), which is the government’s own travel agency, and the only company that can issue travel permits for Tibet. After confirming that they charged 1700 yuan for a four day permit and a bus ticket to Lhasa–for which the Chinese pay 120 yuan–we resolved to go it alone.
In the dorm room we were staying in we met an Italian man who had arrived before us and bribed his way onto the Chinese bus, only to get arrested at the PSB checkpoint 30 km down the road.
With our resolve unshaken we set off with a Polish guy, Jacek, in search of a truck driver that would smuggle us across the border. After extensive negotiations with some shady characters down by the train station we organised for the three of us to get taken across the border in a jeep for 800 yuan each–still an outrageous price, but nonetheless a great saving.
After checking out of our hotel with a bogus story for CITS about traveling to Dunhuang, in neighbouring Gansu province, we caught a taxi to the designated meeting point. When we arrived there was a 4×4 and another taxi waiting for us. Switching into the other taxi we drove off down the road with the 4×4 close behind us. Shortly after we turned off the main road and into the poorest district of Golmud. Pulling over our driver jumped out and another driver got in to replace him. A little concerned buy this unexpected development we nervously made jokes about getting mugged by our driver.
On the highway out of town we speculated that we must be passing through the PSB checkpoint in the taxi rather than the 4×4, as that would be a prime target for inspection. Pulling over at a petrol station along the way, we stopped next to the official bus. After a protracted argument in Chinese between Sergio and our contact it soon became clear that they wanted to change the deal and put us on the bus. Ironically the Italian man from our hostel was already on the bus after being forced to pay the full 1700 yuan by the PSB as part of his release conditions.
Begrudgingly we agreed, and watched as our luggage drove off in the back of the bus without us. Getting back into the taxi we overtook the bus and sped down the highway towards the checkpoint. About 1 km short, we pulled over and our contact got into another car that he hailed from the side of the road. As both cars approached the checkpoint neither slowed down, and we passed through without incident. The taxi then dropped us off about 10 km further up the road in the middle of a completely desolate mountainous desert.
About one hour later the bus arrived and we got on. We each paid our 500 yuan bribes for the PSB and then took the bus driver’s licensed as security for our arrival in Lhasa. Settling into our sleeper births–little more than a reclined chair, and far to short for me–I suddenly realised that the passenger above me was a police officer. Amusingly he didn’t seem interested in the obvious bribery that was going on, and chatted casually to us during the journey.
The trip from Golmud to Lhasa takes anywhere from one to two days depending on the road conditions and vehicle. For us it took 28.5 hours, as our bus broke down twice along the way. At first the ride was quite exhilarating as we drove out of the desert and into the snow capped mountains. Unfortunately night soon fell, so the most scenic part of the journey was lost–and with night came the cold . Just imagine waking up in the middle of the night, freezing cold, with a throbbing headache and hard of breath because the rickety bus you’re on just reached one of the highest mountain crossings in the world–at 5,231 meters above see level!
Arriving in Lhasa late the next day, the bus dropped us off at the edge of town to avoid suspicion at the bus station. We each paid the remaining 300 yuan bribe to the driver, and then got a local mini-bus across town to find a hotel. As we had arrived on the first day of Shotun Festival, however, all of the hostels in Lhasa were booked out–all of them! In the end we managed to negotiate to sleep on the floor of the laundry service room of a hostel for 15 yuan each.
Check out the Tibet photo gallery.
Comment from Carl
Posted on Monday, 8 August 2005 at 9:39 pm
Sounds like quite the adventure! I’d probably be convinced I was going to get caught.
I’m Carl, I’m moving to Xi’an in September and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. I’m trying to get as much research done as I can before I go in a few weeks after spending about two years being a complete hedonist and realising I need a change of direction. One of the things about your website I’ve enjoyed is that you have stated that you smoke pot in China. I am quite the fan of weed, and have been dreading not being able to smoke for 12 months. What’s the deal about smoking in China? I know it’s illegal but it’s illegal in the UK and it happens a lot without anyone really minding. Is it easily accessible and is it expensive?
Comment from Evan
Posted on Tuesday, 9 August 2005 at 12:37 am
Pot is easy to get in Yunnan province and hash is easy to get in Beijing, but aside from those places it’s rather difficult to find as there is almost no Chinese domestic consumption. Class A drugs are in fact much easier to aquire all over China than pot.
As for cost, it’s quite expensive relative to income, but much cheaper than back home.
Comment from Carl
Posted on Tuesday, 9 August 2005 at 1:05 am
Thanks for the info, I’m just relieved that it’s possible to smoke out there, it is a habit that I enjoy and wouldn’t want to give it up completely…
Comment from Jon
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2005 at 12:40 am
Hey Cheech and Chong, sorry to interject and everything, but how is scoping the cost of weed in China the first step on your turn away from mindless hedonism?
You are moving to the wrong place if you want to give stuff up… that was my intention too
Eva - was the Italian guy the panto-dancer from Mix? He was always going to be picked up by border patrol, possibly for ostentatious dancing.
Comment from Carl
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2005 at 4:37 am
It’s not that I want to give it up. I’m quite comfortable being a hedonist, I want a change of direction not because of smoking weed. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.
My main reasons for going is teaching. I can’t wait to get out there. I know that a well seasoned expat will say “Just you wait…” but I’m up for the challenge. I’ve been researching my trip so thoroughly and as now I’ve got to the point of wondering if I could smoke a bit out there.
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